Truth and Reality

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Truth and Reality: Putnam and the Pragmatist Conception of Truth by Christopher Hookway 1. Introduction: truth, convergence and interests According to Hilary Putnam, “it is virtually a conceptual truth for both Peirce and James [he might have added Dewey] that the long-run opinion of those that inquire, the opinion that they are ‘fated to hold’ is the true one. This is their constitutive account of truth.” (1997: 169). It is expressed in Peirce’s “pragmatic” clarification of the concept of truth as “the opinion which is fated to be agreed to by all who investigate”, but, although endorsed by James and Dewey, it had little role in their philosophical thought. Most contemporary philosophers who draw on pragmatist ideas have rejected it. Putnam himself believes that it has some very implausible consequences and is also in tension with those themes in pragmatism which he finds most valuable. [1] The account is implausible because there are plainly truths which, we are sure, will not be a matter of agreement, however long we inquire into them. It also entails that whether it is true that Caesar sneezed three times on the day he first crossed to England is a matter of what future evidence will turn up rather than being a matter of what happened in Gaul some two thousand years ago. The pragmatist insight which it obscures is found in James’s insistence that a variety of practical and aesthetic interests can have a role in determining whether a system of beliefs agrees with reality, indeed that there are different versions of reality which answer to different practical concerns and are not in competition. Peirce’s view, by contrast, emphasises that there is a single fundamental aim, common to all rational inquirers, of contributing to the growth of finished knowledge. If truth were not characterised by reference to such a general interest, why
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